Premier Andrew Furey is promising a review of the tumultuous election that came to a close Saturday, and says changes to Newfoundland and Labrador's electoral system are on the horizon.
Furey, speaking to reporters for the first time Saturday after the election results were released — results that gave his Liberals a slim majority, but was overall marked by low voter turnout — said his party will take steps to address the unexpectedly long 10-week campaign.
"We're certainly going to review what happened in this election — we've said that — and we'll have a look at what was done well, what was done poorly, how we can improve for the future and … modernize the Elections Act moving forward," Furey told the media in a scrum at his party's headquarters, before a crowd capped at 50 due to public health restrictions.
The campaign was meant to span four weeks, but a outbreak of a contagious coronavirus variant in the St. John's area in its final days brought about a swift restructuring to the planned electoral process, with the entire province eventually moving to mail-in only voting that spanned weeks and was dogged by voters' complaints.
During the campaign, Furey repeatedly deflected questions about its handling, deferring to the authority of Elections NL and its head, Bruce Chaulk. But on Saturday criticisms surfaced as Furey suggested some voter issues could have been foreseen and remedied, such as a lack of mail-in ballot translation for Indigenous voters.
"Regardless if there was a pandemic or not, these ballots should've been translated into Indigenous languages so people could vote in their mother tongue," Furey said.
"So that seems like an easy fix. I can't figure out why it wasn't done before."
Furey said "seemingly simple" issues such as that would be remedied, and offer insight into how to make the entire process better.
With the election barely behind the province, the spectre of legal questions surrounding its legitimacy remain. NDP Leader Allison Coffin, who lost her seat by a narrow margin, peppered her concession speech with remarks of voter complaints and feelings of disenfranchisement.
Constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner said there a couple of ways election results can be challenged in court: asking for a judicial recount — if someone believes there may be improperly counted or improperly spoiled ballots — and asking for the election results to be overturned due to irregularity.
In the latter case, within two months and one day after the polling date, anybody can ask the court to void the results of the election and order a new one. Skinner noted, though, that disputing the results of the entire election would require 40 court challenges: one for each district in the province.
For Skinner, one of the biggest issues is that Elections NL was in a tough spot because legislation governing provincial elections isn't clear in some areas.
Elections Act vs. charter right to vote
"The chief electoral officer, if you interpret the act in a certain way, can't change the ordinary polling date, so that would have been Feb. 13," he said. "Why does that matter? Well, it means that any votes that came in after that point technically wouldn't count."
Another way to challenge the results would be to look at any impediments preventing someone from exercising their charter right to vote, he said.
"That's a little bit more complicated to look at, and has to be looked at on a per-district basis."
Depending on how such a challenge were argued, though, Skinner said it's possible the courts could decide that even if chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk didn't have the legal authority to change the election date, doing so allowed tens of thousands more people to exercise their charter right to vote.
Slow approach needed for governance, says political scientist
Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook said Monday that while the Liberals won a majority, Furey and his team should be cautious about moving too quickly, given the problems with the election.
"I've said for a while I think they should be cautious with these results," he told The St. John's Morning Show on Monday. "It may not be highly likely that cases will get challenged effectively and that election results will be overturned — we really don't know right now — but I think it's worth anticipating that even if the odds of that are low, we don't find ourselves in a position where we governed when we shouldn't have."
Blidook agreed that the Elections Act needs to be reviewed.
"It's not clear that the polling date can be moved," he said. "There's a few things in there that people have pointed out that just aren't clear. My understanding [is] it's not clear that you can go entirely to a mail-in ballot. It might be that you can, but again, if the Elections Act isn't sort of crystal-clear on these things, if you get into an emergency and you don't know, that's the worst-case scenario."
When Furey talks about problems with voting, Blidook said, while maintaining it was a legitimate election, he needs to provide a clear sense of what the premier thinks occurred here and why.
"I would just like to hear a little bit more clarity on what he thinks has actually occurred with this election, why he feels it's legitimate, and why he feels he has a mandate to do ... things he hasn't told us he's going to do yet."
Voter turnout was roughly 48 per cent, the lowest in the province's history.